What do last year’s The Predator and Netflix’s breakout thriller Bird Box have in common? Yes, they both feature deadly monsters and a fight for survival, but more importantly, they both raise the same question: Why hasn’t Trevante Rhodes starred in his own movie yet?
Since breaking through in Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight in 2016, Rhodes has cropped up in a handful of supporting roles that emphasize what a crime it is that he has yet to take on the mantle of leading man. He has the kind of effortless charm and charisma that naturally elevates even the most half-baked of material, and each of his big-screen appearances suggest that shine could easily be applied to just about any genre.
Jenkins’ film communicates a tremendous empathy and love, in part with a singular focus, through lingering shots and close-ups, on the features of his actors. To wit, the introduction of the adult Chiron — now known as “Black” — is entirely wordless, relying solely on Rhodes’ expression and physicality to convey a flux of emotions and years’ worth of change without any other characters present (until roughly a minute in).
[Ed. note: The rest of this article contains spoilers for The Predator and Bird Box.]
Rhodes can carry emotional weight without breaking a sweat, and he brings that same richness to films like The Predator and Bird Box, which, no matter what you may think of them, can’t be said to have (or at least provide him with) the same depth. It doesn’t matter that he’s largely sidelined and (spoilers for both movies) required to be the noble sacrifice in each — he still manages to make an impression.
Despite The Predator’s edgelord sense of humor (Rhodes’ character goes by “Nebraska” to avoid using his given name, “Gaylord,” which, OK, Shane Black), the actor manages to wring some pathos out of the material; Nebraska’s death makes an impact rather than simply occurring, as most of the rest do. His brief monologue about his experience at war fits into the comic-book feel of the movie without coming off as silly or otherwise belabored. It doesn’t feel like an accident that it’s Rhodes who gets to say the immortal Predator line — “Get to the choppers,” as screamed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1987 film — rather than Boyd Holbrook, who plays the film’s lead.
By contrast, it does feel like a fluke that Holbrook’s character is the only one left alive to carry on the property’s franchise interests. The Sam Worthington-like actor is left to flounder with a character written as a cipher, while Rhodes, working with a combination of the “quirky supporting character” vibe, as well as the gravitas required of a second-in-command, brings a little more heft. Who wouldn’t follow him into alien battle?
Bird Box recognizes that he has what it takes to hold his own, megawatt for megawatt, against Sandra Bullock, as it pairs them together while civilization falls into the hands (eyes?) of invisible monsters. Though he does a little of the same action-man schtick that The Predator demands, he’s also allowed to flex his muscles as a love interest, and, despite being once again marked for death from the start, builds up enough of an emotional investment that it’s a pity to see his character go.
In both films, Rhodes performs a kind of magic that, in this business, we call “the Keanu Reeves.” Their acting styles aren’t similar, and their appeals are different, apart from an underlying sense of earnestness, but that both Rhodes and Reeves can take subpar material and carve out a relatable springboard, making it seem — so long as they’re on screen — that we’re watching something that’s better than it is.
That level of skill is what makes Moonlight so special. Rhodes is perfectly good as the hero or the partner, but given the space to do more, he’s a revelation. As Black, he doesn’t move much, but even the slightest shift in his face conveys volumes. Chiron is closed off, having learned to protect himself by keeping his emotions under lock and key, hence his stolid physicality.
But love — at the risk of sounding maudlin — is a more powerful force. Love for his mother (Naomie Harris), despite her neglect; love for his childhood friend and sweetheart, Kevin (André Holland) — it pierces through his stony countenance in the set of his brow and the simple way he looks at Kevin when they’re reunited after years apart. He has to project the Chirones we’ve seen before him (Alex Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teenager) with just a gaze — and he does.
To say so much with so little, literally and figuratively, is rare, and Rhodes has proved his leading man potential multiple times over, across multiple genres. It’s a delight to see him in any movie, but it’s about time we saw him anchor a film — A romantic comedy! A Blade reboot! Every role that Brad Pitt would have been up for in the ’90s! — rather than serve as cannon fodder.